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Monday, August 10, 2009
Words & Language Toolbox

Dying to quote

By Paula LaRocque

Media writers often say they live by the quote. But if the quotations appearing daily in print journalism are any indication, they’re more likely to be dying by them. Here, from a Texas newspaper, is an example of a quote to die by:

The study found that almost half the charter schools performed about the same as traditional public schools in math, said Dr. Margaret Raymond, lead author of the study and head of the research team.

“Then, 17 percent had statistically superior figures, and 37 percent of charter schools were significantly worse than public school,” she said.

Tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception, the study says.

This passage is gibberish. Unfortunately, it’s also typical. Printed media in general need a massive overhaul of the way they handle quotations.

The passage presents a statement that should function as the setup for the quotation. Then the quotation. Then a paragraph that should make a transition from one subject to another.

The setup says that, in math, almost half the charter schools performed about the same as traditional schools. (And the remaining half did what? Worse? Better?)

The quotation should amplify that setup, but it only muddies already murky waters by adding that 17 percent (of charters, we assume) were superior and 37 percent were worse than public schools. Are we still talking about math? No, the figures disagree. So what are we talking about? Overall performance? If so, what of the remaining 46 percent? The same? Must be, if 17 percent is better and 37 percent is worse.

So if 46 percent is the same and 17 percent is better, a total of 63 percent is either the same or better. Yet the headline reads: “Charter schools lag behind, study says.”

At this point, the reader is officially stymied.

What does “then” mean in Dr. Raymond’s quotation? Is it sequential (first this, then that)? Or does it mean “therefore”? Neither. The quotation is plunked down without regard to what precedes or follows. Its position suggests it will explain or reinforce the previous paragraph, but it does no such thing. And with the segue to “variation in academic quality,” all logic is abandoned.

Why is that quotation even there? Maybe it was just “time for a quote.” But it’s incoherent in that position. The quote explains nothing in the narrative, and nothing in the narrative explains the quote.

Quotations are not baubles that hang willy-nilly on a narrative. Like any paragraph, they’re organic, threads in a narrative weave. Paragraphs are not interchangeable, nor are quotations. Neither should be ripped away without repairing the breach, nor replanted without preparing the ground. We need better reasons for inserting a quote than because:

• We want a quote by the third or fourth paragraph.

• We want a quote before the jump.

• We haven’t had a quote in a while.

• We want to break up a patch of narrative.

Why do we need a quote by the third paragraph, or before the jump? Because the content demands it (unlikely), or to conform to some formulaic template? Many excellent stories have few or no direct quotes but are told largely or entirely in narrative and paraphrase. That decision should hang on a single criterion: Who tells it better, source or reporter?

And why are we “breaking up” the narrative? The narrative is the story. Why should it be broken up? Because it’s unclear? Because it’s a long, dense, uninviting passage? If so, the narrative is poor and should be rewritten. Great quotes can enliven a good narrative, but they can’t redeem a bad one.

Not all news publications blunder in their use of quotes, of course. The Wall Street Journal and the magazine The Economist are two publications that consistently handle quotations with purpose and polish. Compare the newspaper passage above with this from a story on charter schools in The Economist (June 13, 2009). Here, the narrative line coherently presents quotations that augment meaning with non-repetitive but reinforcing information that swiftly moves the story along:

Newark’s charters are convinced they have a compelling story to tell.

“We have never expelled a single child from one of our schools in Newark,” says Ryan Hill, the director of the three schools run in the city by KIPP. …

Drew Martin, a KIPP principal, is proud of his school’s record in getting lagging children back on course.

“More than four-fifths of our pupils are reading below grade level when they arrive aged ten,” he says. “Three years later, fewer than a quarter of them still are.”

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